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30 January 2012

If I could bribe them by a Rose

If I could bribe them by a Rose
I'd bring them every flower that grows
From Amherst to Cashmere!
I would not stop for night, or storm –
Or frost, or death, or anyone –
My business were so dear!

If they would linger for a Bird
My Tambourin were soonest heard
Among the April Woods!
Unwearied, all the summer long,
Only to break in wilder song
When Winter shook the boughs!

What if they hear me!
Who shall say
That such an importunity
May not at last avail?
That, weary of this Beggar's face –
They may not finally say, Yes –
To drive her from the Hall?
                                                - F176 (1860)  179

To paraphrase: the squeaky wheel gets the oil. If you  make a pest of yourself, if you are just persistent enough even if you drive everyone crazy, you may well end up achieving your goal. Here the poet doesn’t ever specify her goal but it is something she wants pretty bad. She’s willing to bribe, and the example she gives is roses that she would single-mindedly hunt until every single flower between here and upper India were in her hot little hand. Nothing would stop her – and no one!
Roman Beggar Woman
Edgar Degas
            The second example she gives is that of bird song. She would play her “Tambourin” like a bird in the woods not only through spring and summer, but winter, too. In fact, winter would only spur her to “wilder song.”  So at least metaphorically, those she opportunes are flower and bird lovers. Lucky for Dickinson who was also a flower and bird lover. No doubt, though, in reaching for a metaphor she reached for the beloved things around her.
            In the last stanza she is saying, so what if they hear me and grow tired of me? The strategy might work if only to get rid of me – “drive her from the Hall.” It is left to the reader to deduce who “They” may be. I’m happy with the ambiguity, though. By not spelling it out she leaves the poem open enough for readers to supply their own heartfelt desires. Surely many of us would be willing to make a pest of ourselves, go all out, give 101 percent, for that goal we dream of.
            But what might the poet be wanting? A few things spring to mind: Inclusion in the lives or in important events by people she loves (perhaps the Bowles or Austin and Sue); or maybe publishers who might publish her poetry (and this is a strategy modern poets adopt as well – wear the poetry editor down until she finally publishes something); or – and this seems too easy, Heaven. She would really really like to get to heaven. I like this interpretation because she refers to herself as a “Beggar” and that is traditionally a metaphor for a supplicant for paradise. Also, the idea of a “Hall” where one petitions is akin to some of her other imagery of heaven where there are hosts of angels, buildings, hierarchies, etc. Dickinson also commonly refers to angels, and they are typically the sort of angel to whom bird song and flowers would appeal. Ultimately, however, who knows?
            Dickinson makes a lot of use of rhyme although there isn’t a rhyme scheme: In stanza 1 it is AABCDB; stanza 2 is AABCCD; and stanza 3 is ABACDDC. Metrically, the poem is straightforward. Each stanza has two iambic tetrameter lines, a trimeter, two more iambic tetrameter lines followed by a final trimeter. The last stanza divides the first tetrameter into two lines in order to better emphasize her need for courage: “They” might hear her!
            Another emphasis comes with the spondee, the two adjacent accented syllables, in the last stanza: “say, Yes.” These two syllables are key to the poem and so deserve the emphasis.
            Whatever it was Dickinson wanted, I for one hope she got it!


  1. "What if they hear me!" is an "Adonic" - a metric line I can't separate from Sappho's verse, myself. ( That is, love poems.
    I'll echo you: /who/ever she wanted, I hope she got!

    1. Thanks - looked up in my poetry dictionary. Useful term and works well here.

  2. I vote for literary fame as her wish. Her voice has the command presence to make others assent to her wild songs when plagued by earthly struggles.

  3. If the poem is akin to a flower, or bird song, then this poem is, perhaps, to get the reader ("them") to pay attention to flowers and birdsong itself, to beauty. That's the "dear business" of it. The desperate wish is not for the poet so much as for the reader, that the reader "get" the very thing they are being bribed with. It strikes me as funny that way in its irony. I want you to have this beauty it is saying, so I'll keep piling up flowers and song at your door until you finally don't need me anymore ("drive her from the hall") to point out to you that beauty is all around you. It's like the Buddha holding up a flower for the lesson. What's the lesson here? Ohhh, the flower itself.

    The poet as a beggar, begging us to get it, and even transcending frost, storms, night, winter (all metaphors for what might be keeping us from seeing the beauty) strikes me as so heroic. I will go to the ends of the earth for you this poem (and all of Emily's work) says. The poet will even transcend death to get this information to us, as, indeed, she does! For here is a missive importuning us to see the beauty around us long after the poet herself has died.

    1. Yes, I like your reading. I like it better with each re-reading.

  4. Susan Dickinson’s 1891 poem, ‘Minstrel of the Passing Days’, tells us what minstrel ED sought so persistently:

    “Minstrel of the passing days
    Sing me the song of all the ways
    That snare the soul in the red haze
    Song of the dark glory of the hills
    When dyes are frightened to dull hues
    Of all the gaudy shameless tints
    That fire the passions of the prince
    Strangling vines clasping their Cleopatras
    Closer than Antony's embrace
    Whole rims of haze in pink
    Horizons be as if new worlds hew
    Shaping off our common quest.”

    ED’s poems and letters and many scholarly publications have firmly established that Shakespeare’s depiction of Antony and Cleopatra became ED and Sue’s go-to metaphor for their relationship. ED was lovesick Antony and “siren” Sue was Cleopatra.

  5. In Mabel Todd’s 1890 publication of this poem, the “her” in the last line of ED’s manuscript was changed to “me”. I suspect Austin asked Mabel to make that change to remove any ambiguity in Line 19 about “her”, that is, to ensure the reader knew for certain that the pesty “I" & "me” of the poem was ED.

    The “They” in Line 18 was probably Austin and Sue.